Co-operative Learning in PE

co-operative learning

Since well before Bandura first shared his social learning theory in 1977, it is clear that learning is maximised when done with others. We are social animals who learn best when we explore, unpick and discover together. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) also promotes the idea of ‘social and emotional learning’ (SEL) as an intervention to improve students ability to self-manage and interact with each other. However, the focus of this blog is to promote some of the basic routines that will help supercharge learning in physical education (PE).

Kagan’s Co-operative Learning Structures

My copy of Spencer and Miguel Kagan’s book has been more thumbed and utilised over the years than most. This old but short video will give you a nice overview of why and some of the ways that co-operative learning structures can be implemented in your lessons:

There are four basic principles that underpin why and how Kagan’s Cooperative Learning can be so successful and these can be easily remembered by the acronym P.I.E.S.

Positive independenceTasks are set by the teacher and require everyone to play their part and contribute towards team goals to complete and succeed together
Individual accountabilityEach member of the class needs to contribute fully as, unlike in traditional approaches and hands up questioning, there is no place to hide
Equal participationAll members of each group are required to engage fully
Simultaneous interactionAll students get to participate and contribute at the same time which means everyone is thinking and learning rather than just the individual in direct dialogue with the teacher

I first utilised these ideas in classroom-based examination PE teaching but quickly figured out ways to adapt and apply them to teaching in a practical setting.

Benefits of utilising co-operative learning

It takes time to embed good routines around CL but once established the opportunities for greater learning and progress by all students in the class are really super-charged. Here are just 5 of the main benefits I have felt from applying CL approaches in my teaching:

  1. Shared responsibility results in greater ownership and hence improved opportunities for all to learn and progress. As Benjamin Frankin once said and has been repeated many times as part of the ‘learning pyramid‘, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”
  2. Broader inter-personal skills like communication, decision making, teamworking, leadership, managing conflict and listening can be developed alongside physical skills being learnt or understanding being quizzed
  3. Regular Q&A focuses on an interaction between teacher and individual whereas CL ensures all students get the opportunity to share their answer/ thinking out loud to a peer and then there is equal chance of any of them being selected to share with the wider group rather than hands up or ‘cold calling’ approaches that allow 95% of the class to switch off
  4. The attention switches from one focused on outcomes to being more about learning and less about momentary performance and hence about learning as a journey rather than an end destination
  5. Whilst it takes time conditioning students to remain focused and on task during paired or small group tasks, learning time is maximised for all as long as they feel the pressure (individual accountability) that comes with proper use of CL structures.

Examples of co-operative learning in action

As you will see, in Kagan’s book alone, there are hundreds of ideas and many effective ways to implement them in your teaching but here are 5 of my favourites:

  1. Think-Pair-Share: reduce the number of questions you ask in a lesson and instead ensure that any big question you ask comes with sufficient time for individuals to think, verbalise their response with a partner AND THEN be ready for cold calling and subsequent snowballing of responses to ensure the whole class remain engaged.
  2. Numbered Heads Together has to be my all-time favourite Kagan structure. Students in my classes are used to being grouped into fours and given ‘stand time’ to prepare an answer before one of the four group members is randomly selected to stand back up and share their groups thinking with the class.
  3. Reciprocal learning cards: As busy teachers we are guilty of gravitating towards direct instruction in an attempt to speed up learning but it rarely has the effect of long-lasting ‘sticky’ learning. Our resource bank is full of student worksheets to support peer to peer coaching with clear tasks, ideas for progression/ regression and success criteria.
  4. The jigsaw method: If you are able to invest more time in allocating small groups to properly research and develop understanding/ skills in a specific area of learning before cascading that learning to the rest of the class then you have to try jigsaw.
  5. And finally, the simplest of them all. So often we devote lesson time to games and applying skills in a competitive scenario but how often do you get students to observe, analyse and feedback on the performance of their peers as a routine? Simply pairing students up before game play commences and expecting students to share what went well (WWW) and even better if (EBI) feedback with that partner during half time or the walk back to the changing rooms is highly effective but only if you develop student skills to do this properly and not just at a superficial level.

Models-based Practice

Co-operative Learning (CL) is one of a small number of models that are used fairly extensively and successfully in PE. Casey and Kirk unpick many of the key features in their 2020 book but for a deeper dive into CL I highly recommend Ben Dyson & Ash Casey’s 2012 book which explains these features more fully and provides case study examples in practice.

Four domains of learning

Ash Casey and Vicky Goodyear (2015) suggest co-operative learning supports the development of physical, cognitive, social and affective learning domains and is especially powerful when considered and deployed as an instructional model for more than just a short unit of work.

Want more?

Ash Casey created a useful playlist of short video clips during coronavirus lockdown that you may want to access to find out a little more on how to set up effective CL groups. These videos are available via YouTube here.

What do you think?

What have we missed and what other ideas do you have for effectively implementing co-operative learning in your PE lessons?

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